When it comes to street food, East Asia is a veritable goldmine. In every village, town and city, food stalls abound selling mouthwatering delicacies. Every region has its own unique cuisine with recipes often accompanied by charming mythical tales of peasants and emperors to explain each dish’s origin.
But where can you find the best of the best? No one is better placed to know East Asia’s street food hotspots than the Chinese traveller, thanks to an eye for the finest regional specialties and an adventurous palate. Booking.com has utilized Chinese travellers’ expertise to compile a list of where to find the best street food in East Asia.
Here are the definitive top seven cities for street food, according to Booking.com review data analyzing street food endorsements from Chinese customers.
A keen eye will spot the imprint other cultures have made on Taiwanse street cuisine in Jiufen
Jiufen, New Taipei City, Taiwan
The winding alleyways of Jiufen offer some of the world’s best street food as well as a booming night market scene. Scoring the top spot for Chinese traveller’s street food endorsements on Booking.com, it’s a fantastic destination for foodies. A village in the mountains with a refined culture and heavy Japanese influences, it also served as the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s cherished film, Spirited Away. Japanese-inspired street food include ‘fried milk’ skewers and popcorn chicken but there are myriad other cultures that have made their imprint on Taiwanese cuisine. Most of the street food action centres around Jiufun Old Street, a long stretch of food stalls selling traditional treats such as taro balls, oyster pancakes, and sweet desserts, like light bean curd ‘flower’ in syrup. There are a lot of braised options too, from raw vegetables to half-cooked offal, which you self-select into a basket and they cook for you into a mega stew.
In Wuhan you tuck into authentic regional specialties surrounded by the aroma of fresh dumplings and fish pan-fried with ginger and garlic
Wuhan, Hubei, China
Wuhan is one of China’s largest cities, merged from three ancient villages that now form one huge metropolis straddling the Yangtze River. Amid the city’s 166 lakes, the sprawling network of streets contains a mind-boggling quality and variety of street food vendors. And of the many places to go to make the most of this, Hubu Alley is very popular. Here you can tuck into authentic regional specialties surrounded by the aroma of fresh dumplings and fish pan-fried with ginger and garlic. A local classic is Re Gan Mian (hot dry noodles), a unique dish made via a several-step process. First noodles are mixed with sesame oil in boiling water, then cooled and cooked again to become firm, oily and delicious. Or there’s Wuhan Doupi, a delightfully sweet & savoury rice wrapped in bean-flour pancakes and supposedly a favourite of Chairman Mao himself.
Taste the local delicacies at Tainan's vibrant night market
Tainan, Tainan Municipality, Taiwan
While Taiwanese street food is renowned and reproduced throughout Asia, nothing compares to having fresh delicacies prepared for you on the spot by locals. And Tainan, the oldest city on the island and accessible via high-speed train from the capital, is a great place for this. The night market has a buzzing, vibrant atmosphere and ridiculously moreish Taiwanese dishes. These include tea eggs – eggs simmered in strong, spiced tea to produce a sweet but savoury brown-marbled treat within – and pineapple cake, or fengli su – a dainty cake filled with candied pineapple and a mix of winter melon.
Seafood lovers rejoice in Chiayi City
Chiayi City, Chiayi County, Taiwan
Another hub of Taiwanese street food is the night market scene of Chiayi City. As darkness falls, the market area turns into a riotous mix of purveyors of regional delicacies until late at night. Chiayi county has a vast seafood harvest and oysters tend to dominate menus here as well as the food stalls of the popular Wenhua Road Night Market. Try the oyster soup, oysters in five flavours or clams in rice wine, often with basil, ginger or black pepper. But the dish that Chiayi is famous for is ‘turkey rice’, a simple but delicious dish of turkey drizzled with a special gravy and laid over rice and vegetables. Chia Le Fu Night Market is another authentic local culinary experience – the barbecue stall at the entrance is a must-try.
George Town street food is the perfect blend of Cantonese, Indonesian and Indian cuisine
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Malaysian street food is a medley of many cuisines, mainly Cantonese, Indonesian and Indian. In particular, thanks to the Cantonese origins of a lot of the Malaysian population, you’ll find that region’s special ‘sweet syrups’ everywhere. These desserts are sold outdoors from street vendors and are known as ‘sugar water’ or ‘tang shui’. Normally, this entails glutinous rice balls with different fillings, served up in a sugared water with a syrupy consistency. But the most famous Malaysian dish is laksa, a type of curry noodle unique to each of the regions of Malaysia. Other delights to look out for are satay skewers with lonton (cubes of rice), ‘teh tarik’(hot tea sweetened with condensed milk), nasi lemak (rice with a mix of side dishes e.g. dried whitebait, cucumber, egg) and roti canai (savoury pancakes with a range of curries for dipping).
Many of the food stalls in Nanjing feature duck-based dishes, earning it the name of "duck capital"
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China
Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, is an elegant city sitting on the Yangzi River. Leafy neighbourhoods separated by lakes and forested parks overflow with food stalls that sell a selection of the city’s specialties. Many of these feature duck, earning Nanjing a reputation as China’s ‘duck capital’, a well-deserved nickname since the quality of duck here really is sublime. Of the many variants, Nanjing Salted Duck is the most famous. Marinated in salt, Sichuan pepper and brine before being boiled in water and Chinese rice wine, it looks plain but is packed with flavour. Nanjingers are also fond of a form of sesame pastry made with duck fat for breakfast, steamed duck meat dumplings for lunch and duck blood vermicelli soup for dinner.
Changsha cuisine has mastered the art of spice, known for their dishes with a kick
Changsha, Hunan, China
This 3000-year-old city on the Xiang River has had plenty of time to develop a strong culinary culture. Now the modern and dynamic capital of Hunan province, Changsha is a centre of Hunan or ‘Xiang’ cuisine, which tends to be defined as aromatic, sour and spicy. But it’s not spicy in the tongue-numbing sense, just enough to give dishes a kick like the juicy and fresh Changsha ‘spicy shrimps’. In terms of the city’s best street food, Huo Gong Dian (aka Fire God Palace) temple building is where it’s at. Now a gathering place for local shows and social events, it also houses a row of food stalls selling all the finest Hunan classics. Recommended dishes include deyuan steamed bun, a recipe established during the reign of Emperor Guangxu for soft, fluffy buns containing either sweet (usually rose and sugar) or savoury (e.g. barbecued pork) stuffing.